South Africa

Skilled professionals flooding out of South Africa

Wits Professor William Gumede said South Africa is facing a skills exodus which has become a crisis.

Gumede is a public and development management associate professor at the Graduate School of Business Administration, University of the Witwatersrand.

He told Business Day TV that the exodus of qualified professionals is particularly damaging because the skills leaving the country are the same skills needed at home.

“Highly skilled people of all races, all ages, and all parts of the country are leaving,” he said.

He highlighted three sets of skilled professionals leaving South Africa:

  • Highly qualified young people who want to start a career overseas
  • People who are starting families and planning for the future. They have high-level skills and are financially secure.
  • People nearing retirement who are highly skilled, experienced, and have a lot of money

“When these people move overseas, we lose skills, money, and their ideas and energy,” Gumede said.

He said South Africa needs people with skills, ideas, and energy to turn the country around and increase economic growth.

“When you strip a country of these key people, it seriously undermines it from an economic growth perspective,” he said.

Employer labour consultant Tony Healy echoed Gumede’s view, saying highly skilled professionals are leaving South Africa.

As a result, South Africa’s critical skills list is ever-expanding to look for the skills the country is losing through emigration.

Healy said most skilled people leave because of crime, security, corruption, an incompetent government, and a deteriorating outlook for the country.

Gumede added that many people leave because they don’t believe the ruling party has the ability to turn the country around.

He said most people make the decision to leave South Africa unwillingly, but they have no trust the problems South Africa face will be resolved.

Professor William Gumede
Professor William Gumede

The scale of the problem

A white paper from Playroll, OfferZen, and Aims International showed South Africa’s skills crisis runs deeper than industry-specific shortages portray.

The group’s research found that close to 80% of all business leaders it surveyed consider the emigration of skills one of the critical risk factors facing their organisations.

The UN’s 2020 International Migrant Stock report showed that by the end of 2020, 914,901 South Africans lived in other countries and territories, up from 786,554 in 2015.

Worryingly, three times more people emigrated from South Africa between 2015 and 2020 than between 2010 and 2015.

The UK has the most migrant stock from South Africa, with almost a quarter of a million residents listing RSA as their birth country. It is followed by Australia, the USA and New Zealand.

Playroll said the problems around the emigration of critical skills run deeper than even these numbers show because, increasingly, young people are the ones leaving.

South Africans aged between 25 and 40 are the most likely to leave the country. Concerningly, over half of South Africa’s graduates have the potential to emigrate in the future.

Senior employees are also more likely to relocate because they have the financial means to do so.

Data from the South African Revenue Service (SARS) about the number of South African taxpayers who have ended their tax residency in the country provides further insights into these trends.

SARS’ data shows that, over the last five years, over 40,500 taxpayers have ended their tax residency in South Africa.

In recent years, lower-income earners are making up a bigger proportion of these taxpayers leaving.

Tax experts at Tax Consulting SA said this indicates that younger South Africans are deciding to end their tax residency, likely to seek opportunities abroad.


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